Preventing Meltdowns in Students on the Autism Spectrum: Tips for Teachers

"Do you have any simple, 'cut-to-the-chase' advice I could share with my son's teacher (who seems to know very little about how to handle students on the autism spectrum who 'meltdown')? He is currently enrolled in summer school and has this new teacher for a couple months."

Sure. Here goes...

Students with Asperger’s (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA) desperately need support from educators when they struggle with emotional and behavioral issues in school. Here are many helpful strategies that every teacher should know:

AS and HFA can co-exist with other disorders (e.g., ADHD, depression, anxiety). But mostly, this disorder affects the ability to socialize. These youngsters have difficulty recognizing facial expressions, sarcasm, and teasing, and struggle to adapt to unexpected changes in routine. Their interests tend to be very narrow, and this can limit their capacity to relate to others.

Due to these struggles, kids on the autism spectrum oftentimes experience anger, fear, sadness, and frustration. There are several effective interventions that can be employed in the classroom to help improve the youngster’s learning experience. These can assist the student in feeling more comfortable and decrease anxiety, paving the way for academic achievement.

1. Make a Plan for Emotional Outbursts— Provide a quiet place for the student who has frequent meltdowns. This may be a trip to the bathroom with a classroom aide, or a visit to the school counselor. A written plan for coping in these periods of high stress is critical for an AS or HFA student’s success.

2. Make Classroom Rules Clear— Students with AS and HFA thrive on rules, but will often ignore them when they are vague or not meaningful. Educators should detail the most important classroom rules and why they exist. A written list prominently displayed, or a handout of the classroom rules can be very helpful.

3. Minimize Surprises in the Classroom— Youngsters on the autism spectrum need structured settings to succeed. They do not like surprises. Things like sudden seating changes or unexpected modifications to the routine could cause anxiety and even meltdowns. Educators should try to provide ample warnings if there is to be a change of plans (e.g., sending a note home to the parent if a seating change is imminent).

A back up plan can be presented to the class in anticipation of schedule changes (e.g., when the Friday schedule that usually includes watching an educational film in the afternoon changes if time is short, the teacher should inform the students ahead of time that they will work on free reading or journaling instead).

4. Promote Supportive Friendships— If it seems appropriate, educate the class about autism spectrum disorders. Develop empathy by making students aware of inappropriate words and bullying behaviors. Highlight the "special needs" youngster’s strengths in classroom lessons to enable him to find friends with common interests.
If the student on the spectrum seems to be struggling with friendships, group him during classroom activities with those that are more kind and empathetic. At recess or lunch, try assigning a “classroom buddy” who will be supportive and guide the youngster through those more chaotic times.

5. Provide Sensory Support— Many kids with AS and HFA also experience sensory processing issues. Sensitivity to light, sound, touch, taste, and smells can irritate the youngster, making him more likely to act out or withdraw. Consult the mom or dad to determine what these sensitivities are. Minimizing classroom chaos, noise, and clutter will be a good start.

If possible, get help from an occupational therapist and try to work sensory breaks into the youngster’s school day. Chores such as returning a load of books to the library, or even doing a few jumping jacks in the hallway, can go a long way in helping the youngster realign and get back to learning.

Helping kids with AS and HFA in the classroom is yet another challenge for today’s overburdened educators. However, with insightful monitoring, parental and professional guidance, and creative strategies, a love of school and learning can be fostered in these young people kids.

==> Teaching Students with Aspergers and High Functioning Autism

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